Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press (2016)
Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is renowned for its futuristic and eclectic (or ostentatious and jumbled, depending on one’s aesthetic) architecture. It also has a more dubious distinction: it’s the second coldest capital city in the world.
If you can’t change the weather, make it an asset. That’s what Kazakhstan did in its successful bid for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, although its offer to spend millions of dollars may have been more persuasive than the average daytime temperatures. It’s estimated that the government spent over $1.4 billion building new stadiums or renovating existing ones in Astana and Almaty, upgrading Astana’s airport and improving roads and transportation.
When I arrived in Astana in mid-January, preparations for the games were in full swing. A total of twenty-seven countries sent teams, and the organizing committee had scoured foreign-language departments across the country for student interpreters. The committee’s headquarters, full of red track-suited volunteers, and the hotel where most of the athletes and officials were staying were just around the corner from my apartment. On my rare ventures along the snow-covered streets, I’d often see a busload of athletes heading out for the newly built stadiums on the left bank.
Fortunately for the organizers, Kazakhstan topped the medal table, with thirty-two gold, twenty-one silver, and seventeen bronze; Japan, South Korea, and China were the other major medal winners. Ticket prices starting at $100 deterred me (and other Astana residents) from attending events, but they were on TV every night and in seemingly endless reruns through the summer. The only live event I saw was a sideshow in a cavernous exhibition hall where organizers were showing off traditional Kazakh culture to foreign visitors.
I missed the horsemanship exhibition, in which cowboys raced around a small circus ring, performing daring acrobatics. What I did see were three traditional yurts, probably better appointed and furnished than your average out-on-the-steppe variety, and nice handicrafts (leather goods, ornaments, and carpets).
The attempt to re-create the landscape was not as authentic, as I discovered when I leaned on a styrofoam rock and almost pushed over a small mountain. I drank shubat (camel’s milk) and ate traditional snacks (salty or sweet, designed to give that extra burst of energy when you’re rounding up the herd). And I listened to powerful singing from traditional musicians on a stage with a psychedelic light show going on behind. “What’s she singing about?” I asked my interpreter Diana Akizhanova, who had gamely accompanied me. “I’ve no idea. It’s in Yakut [a Siberian language],” she said. Fortunately, the next performer sang in Kazakh. “What’s she singing about?” I asked again. “Oh, about how to deal with life,” said Diana, not very helpfully. “How much do you know about traditional Kazakh culture?” I asked her later. “Not much,” she admitted. “I’m a city girl.”
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube, http://bit.ly/davidhmould